LONDON (AFP) – Parish councils have long been seen as the genteel backbone of local democracy in towns and villages across England, overseeing the upkeep of bus stops, and the maintainance of footpaths and street lighting.
But one group of parish councillors has been accused of holding “Britain’s worst Zoom meeting”, after a chaotic and frequently aggressive online session.
Britain’s tabloid newspapers on Friday (Feb 5) bestowed the dubious accolade on the online meeting of Handforth Parish Council after YouTube highlights garnered hundreds of thousands of views on social media.
The uploaded footage made the principal characters in the Zoom spat – council chairman Brian Tolver and clerk Jackie Weaver – overnight celebrities.
Like so many video conferencing calls, the meeting of the council in north-west England in December was plagued by technical problems.
Members forget to turn their microphones off, one councillor interrupts to take a phone call and participants arriving late aren’t sure if the meeting has officially started.
But simmering tensions from the start between Tolver and his nemesis Weaver boil over on an issue of bureaucracy – whether the meeting has been called legally and who was in charge.
“You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver! No authority at all!” Tolver bellows down the camera after the clerk threatens to eject him from the meeting.
Moments later, Weaver quietly carries out her earlier threat and kicks the chairman out.
After she suggests a vote for a replacement, vice-chairman Aled Brewerton erupts.
“I take charge!” he says before telling Weaver to “read the standing orders”.
“Read them and understand them!” Brewerton shouts before he in turn is booted out of the virtual meeting by Weaver.
‘Attack on democratic rights’
As the footage has made its way into the mainstream media, the spat has gained momentum in the public sphere.
“I’m not actually sure who was in charge,” Weaver told BBC radio on Friday in one of several media appearances.
Tolver has remained steadfast in his own view and called Weaver’s actions an “appalling attack on democratic rights”.
Like many organisations forced to limit numbers or shut offices completely due to the coronavirus, the British parliament has had to adapt its own proceedings to include virtual contributions.
Even in parliament proceedings have occasionally been beset by internet connection problems but have never included an expletive within their first 30 seconds, as was the case in Handforth.
But the social distancing has still inspired some warmer barbs.
House of Commons Speaker Lindsey Hoyle has repeatedly poked fun at one MP calling in online, likening him to an airline pilot because of his headset.
“Ground control to first officer Bob Blackman,” he said as he called him for a contribution.
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